An Unlikely Campaign Manager: The Story of Herman Cain’s Cigarette-Puffing Political Guru

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If you didn’t recognize Mark Block at the beginning of this week, chances are you do now. He is Herman Cain’s campaign manager, perhaps better known as the guy with the mustache in Cain’s viral campaign video who says, “Herman Cain will put United back in the United States of America,” before taking a drag from a cigarette and blowing smoke at the camera.

In the ad, Block says that he works for Cain because he believes in the candidate, but he’s also lucky to have a job in politics at all. A decade ago, beset by legal and financial woes, the veteran GOP staffer found himself banned from working on campaigns in his home state of Wisconsin and forced to take a job restocking shelves at Target to make ends meet.

Block started his political career in 1977 as an assistant to Rep. William Steiger. He went on to work as Midwest director for the telecom company NCR and started a few companies of his own before returning to political consulting in Wisconsin.

His legal troubles began in the wake of the 1997 election season, during which he served as chairman of Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox’s successful campaign. Democrats and Republicans on Wisconsin’s Elections Board alleged that Block had illegally coordinated with Brent Pickens, co-founder of a group called Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation, to establish an off-the-books $200,000 campaign slush fund.

In March 2000, the Election Board voted unanimously to sue Block, Wilcox, and Pickens for their roles in the 1997 campaign. The next year, Block paid a $15,000 settlement, apologized to the people of Wisconsin and agree to stay out of politics for three years. Pickens and Wilcox ultimately agreed to pay $10,000 and $35,000 respectively to settle the matter.

Former board member David Halbrooks remembers it as a slam dunk case. “There was a connection between this outside group and Mark Block running the campaign,” he says. But George Dunst, the Board’s former general counsel, recalls that the evidence was shaky. “[Block] got screwed,” he says. “They really did a number on him.”

To this day, Block maintains he was innocent and insists he only settled because he ran out of money to fight the charges. “I fought it for three years, I was broke.” And that’s how he ended up at Target.

When his three-year ban from politics ended, Block began to rehabilitate his career. In 2005 he landed a gig as director of the Wisconsin chapter of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. And it was through his duties there that he met Herman Cain.

When the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO was recruited to help Americans for Prosperity start up new chapters in Wisconsin, Block and Cain went on a two-day roadtrip together, touring the state. Their relationship blossomed as they worked together over the following six months to expand AFP’s presence into Michigan and Ohio.

In his recent book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, Cain covered his decision to name Block head of his campaign in just a few short sentences. Cain wrote that at some point the two men talked about Cain running for President. “No one can match you in your ability to move a crowd,” Block said to Cain. “You will have an advantage coming out of the gate. You don’t need a top-down,” Block said. “You need a bottom up!” Then Cain wrote simply, “And so Mark signed on to run my campaign.”

Like the candidate he works for, Block, who has been known to take out the garbage at Cain’s campaign office in suburban Atlanta, is an unlikely figure to enter the national spotlight. In his book, Cain wrote that “nobody is more unconventional than Mark Block.” Of course, now that his cigarette-puffing campaign video has gone viral, quite a few people know that.